Practical Water by Brenda Hillman
I hope you don't mind me addressing you like this. Lately everything I write is "Dear Something" (Dear Hellebore, Dear Boot Sore, Dear Haven't-Seen-You-Lately), so it feels right to finally address a real person, even if one I don't know. But since I've been living with your book Practical Water over the past few months, I do feel that I know you almost as well as I know myself. Let me explain: you don't soak in confessions, you're no simple "I" in your work, but you seem to write from at least the GPS coordinates of the real Brenda, and you often include your perceptions even when the poem's not about them (the "poem's" "not" "about" "them," would you gently suggest?), sometimes your perceptions of the writing moment even when the poem is about something quite different, as if I were to note the good-morning burble or the clashing china in this coffee shop, so that places and times open out accordion-style yet pierced or connected by the dot and string of what seems to be Brenda, that open place from which a centering perception emanates or into which perceptions are by some force gathered. (Not gravity; I've just learned there is no such thing.) It's not as if I know who you love or what you dream of, but I know what sights, sounds, ideas, words pass through you in the given span of these poems... and you give me the sense, somehow, that that may be all I can really know of myself either. So: it's winter and finally acting like it, and I am writing you while drinking coffee. Let's snow together, Brenda.
I have to admit I didn't get you a few years ago. Incessantly turning aside from whatever seemed to be content, your poems wound and wound, getting lost in undergrowth like garter snakes or little creeks. You seemed to have no sense of proportion: unimportant, trivial, whimsical, it all went right in, even when you were writing about something serious. I mean, here's a web address wandering into a poem attempting a scope as big as "Pacific Ocean"! Don't you worry about time, Brenda? Don't you care about legacy? Well, as I began puzzlingly to learn while reading Cascadia (your book about earth), and as really sank in when I was reading Pieces of Air in the Epic (your book about air), and now as I enjoy with Practical Water (obvious), that is really the wrong question to ask. To read you, I have to go beyond smiling at your clever descriptions ("Gulls look like girls quickly judging each other's purses"), beyond just letting you have your head when it comes to sound ("ice quilts quite east"). I have to see that all these darlings of yours make the poem -- that anything large must be made of and constantly flickering back into the trivial, that, as you put it,
can you put them both
in the same place?
Why don't you try.
It's not that an ending like
Conductivity, the gray
fur of feeling
wild from anything --
(those sounds! those line breaks!) makes your darlings worth it (though I admit that's sometimes how I would phrase it to myself), rather that the feeling of this ending is a wild freedom to gather in anything to the moment, the single moment, which is always momentous.
Can we talk politics? As in what do you think is the relationship between politics and art? Because I'll confess, I'm often of the belief that politics = flattened meaning = not art. I'm learning otherwise, maybe, but sometimes you still lose me. I mean, the crossed-out American seal at the end of one poem, what can I do with that?
But elsewhere your politics runs a lot deeper than statement, and it makes me run deeper too.
You should make yourself uncomfortable
If not you who
This hortatory mode of yours reminds me of what poets used to do, how it used to be their duty to address the moment. But forget poets, you don't let anyone off easy on this score ("You at home, what do you feel") -- that is, you don't allow us to be disengaged. Most of the time, you don't tell us what to do, just to do -- to notice, to record, to "send back reports" of our experience. Here's something I think you're trying to say in this book: Your world can change. For better or for worse, atom by atom, it moves. And you can be there, you can witness, you can push or pull.
Sometimes your politics seems to be just part of your context, a detail you include the way you include the sparrow's song or a fleeting memory -- and it's all detail with you, Brenda, isn't? Which is why that question I just asked, What is the relationship between art and politics, is nonsense: these monoliths, art, politics, they don't exist. What exists is the bitterbrush, the geyser, and, yes, the Senate Armed Services Committee, but on the same level as Nancy Drew and the saguaro, as any wonderful or dreadful thing.
And sometimes your politics becomes something else, something older and alter:
Why do you write like this
a man asked me
Because sir i am
a sorceress looking for my sources
Magic's gotten a bad name lately, but what you mean by it I can believe: the practical magic of putting together a moment from which to launch one's action. Yes, let's. Brenda, you make me want to cast spells.
The vintage postcard I'm using to hold my place in your book (to hold all my places in all your places -- that's intimate) has an embossed rose on one side, with this inscription:
ROSE -- Love
"With the heartiest affection,
I am sending you today
Warmest greetings, truest wishes;
A card can ever convey."
It's punctuated exactly like that; I record it for you because I know how you love the little prickle-burrs, thorns, circumflex petals that mark our written breath. The postcard is addressed to Miss Dorothy Wood, 11 Walnut St., Brattleboro, Vermont, and it reads
Dear Dot. -- Went
out to day for
the first time. How
does school go?
I guess your
mother is coming
Write to me.
The postmark reads "Putney Jan 16 6pm 1919 VT."
Don't you wonder about Nina, who has gone outside for the first time? And don't you love how little she puts on each line, how she trusts those few words? The postcard reminds me of one of your four-words-a-line poems, which you slip slyly in your books without even giving them a formal title as you often do for your other poems (calling this one half-tractate, this one partita, fugue, rhopalic aubade, anthem, even essay). I love your forms, Brenda, and your ongoing dedication to formal exploration. Lots of poets in your position (respected and all that) might just drop the whole actual poetry thing and get on with saying (whatever that is), but you, Brenda, you still have faith in poetry.
I'm learning to like this feeling that you're not trying to make something permanent. I like to envision the Brenda-arrow flying through the poem and the me-arrow also flying through on its own trajectory, and to think about how the angle between one and the other can be friendly, helpful, loving and how I can maybe take that angle out into the world and consider the two men who just raced by the coffee shop window, one holding a bottle in a paper bag, with that same charity.
Would you mind if I say your writing charms me? I don't mean charm in the sense of girlish flirtation, though there is that. I mean the charm that also holds march and harm, mar and ram and mach (as in speed), and very nearly mark and hark and chasm -- that kind of charm. When you say "I left the world & I felt a world," that's a deep magic you're working on the level of the word.
What is the lasting, after all, but the substrate of the trivial -- all the tails and flirts, lassos and lost hairs, motes and curlicues layered into something one can lean against? I think you know how earth works, Brenda.
Speaking of earth, what do you think of fire? That's what you must be working on to complete your tetralogy, and I guess by your publication dates that you're almost through with the manuscript. I'm eager to read it -- but in some way I feel I'm already reading it, because when I want to describe the movement of your mind, I think of flame:
In the end, there will be nothing wrong.
Tonight red ring surrounds the moon
like a hurt boy
following a married woman;
you hurry along, tired of your travels,
& the dense beauty from whose demands
you never recover
stays beside you
as the orchid keeps the black stripe
of its personal winter --
In my own personal winter it's snowing lightly; I know it will melt on my face when I go outside. Some things are wrong, but they, like everything else, are on the move.
Practical Water by Brenda Hillman